What’s Sephardic About the High Holidays?

September 6, 2018Rabbi Lisa Sari Bellows

What do dates, pomegranates, apples, spinach, squash, pumpkin, beets, scallions, and maybe even the cheek meat of a fish have to do with Rosh HaShanah

They are all part of the traditional Rosh HaShanah sedersederסֵדֶר"Order;" ritual dinner that includes the retelling of the story of the Israelite's Exodus from Egypt; plural: sederim. , which begins the festive holiday meal for Sephardic Jews.

The seder custom originated as a play on words. The Hebrew name for each food of the seder relates either to Hebrew words that express our desire to be blessed with a sweet New Year or to the Hebrew phrase y’hi ratzon (may it be Your will), as it is our hope that God will bless us with goodness, peace, freedom, and ease.  

The term, SephardicSephardiסְפָרַדִּי Jews who come from Spanish backgrounds and from lands around the Mediterranean Sea. comes from the Hebrew word “Sepharad,” meaning Spain. Sephardic Jews are Jews with Spanish and Portuguese roots, although today we use the term to also include MizrachiMizrachiמִזְרָחִיJews who come from Middle Eastern backgrounds. Jews, whose families are from northern Africa and the Middle East. During the Middle Ages, the Jews in Spain who were living under Muslim rule were afforded the freedom to explore and develop Jewish culture, theology, philosophy, art, music, language, food, poetry, and prayer. This period, the Golden Age of Spain, saw Judaism flourish. To this day,  this time period continues to influence Jewish practice and thought.

This summer, I had the good fortune to work with teenagers in the arts unit at URJ Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), a Reform Jewish summer camp. Our theme was the Golden Age of Spain. It was remarkable to teach our own teenage musicians, poets, actors, and artists about a time when we were encouraged to explore Judaism with the freedom and passion our Sephardic ancestors shared with the world. 

The result of our summer together was a stunning demonstration of how each of us might experience our own connection to Judaism, God, Torah, and Israel if given complete freedom and acceptance. Our campers took the sounds, smells, tastes, sights, and feel of the Golden Age of Spain and infused it into their own art, drama, and music studios, creating a stunning tapestry of legacy, presence, and hope. As we explored both the similarities and differences in the culture and traditions of AshkenaziAshkenazאַשְׁכְּנַזLit. "Germany"; includes Jews of European origin. Jews and the Sephardim, many of us began to relate to our own history through the lens of possibility and potential.  

The Golden Age of Spain ended when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. They went to the Jewish communities in Northern Africa and the Middle East and some eventually made their way to America. Sephardic Jews were among the very first Jewish settlers of North America and, in 1684, founded the first Jewish congregation in North America: Congregation Sherith Israel, which remains a vibrant synagogue in New York City. 

The color and vibrancy of Sephardic Jewry has made inroads into most every segment of the Jewish people today. One of my favorite examples of this influence is the addition of the piyyut, a short liturgical poem, and Adon HaSelichot, Master of Forgiveness, to the High Holiday liturgy in many congregations. Once sung only in Sephardic shuls on Yom Kippur, this 11th-century acrostic poem, is now also sung in Ashkenazi-influenced communities as well. The melody of Adon HaSelichot, like many other Sephardic High Holiday liturgical melodies is upbeat, even joyful, as we seek God’s forgiveness, asking for mercy and another year of life.  We sing, “Adon HaSelichot! Master of Forgiveness, we have sinned before You! Have mercy on us!”

Although sung on a solemn, somber day, the upbeat melody reflects a recognition of our blessings and great love for life.

This year at my High Holiday table, we will have a Rosh HaShanah seder, asking God’s blessing on our home and our lives and we will add a measure of joy to our penitential prayers of t’shuvahT'shuvahתְּשׁוּבָה"Return;" The concept of repentance and new beginnings, which is a continuous theme throughout the High Holidays. as we seek to enter the new year with a renewed sense of purpose, gratitude, and awareness. 

Anyada Buena Dulse i Alegre. May you have a good, sweet, and happy new year. 

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